The concert industry began crawling out from a grueling 15-month shutdown this summer, with overjoyed Seattle fans returning to amphitheaters and limited club shows starting in July. Now, as an abbreviated summer concert season winds down, more tours are shifting to indoor venues in September — a month many in the biz have long pegged as live music’s full-force return.
Local music venues have increasingly full slates as touring picks up and the larger theaters and music halls that lure bigger acts reopen. Yet as the moment the industry’s been desperately waiting and preparing for finally arrives, the delta variant has moved in like a dark cloud threatening to rain on the parade.
“It sucks,” Neumos co-owner Steven Severin said with an exasperated laugh. “We had a week that we were all celebrating and dancing around, really excited about the fact that it looked like we beat coronavirus, even though we knew the delta variant was out there and down the road. But we didn’t want to believe it. … It seemed like we had a good path to being able to do shows this fall and now nobody really knows.”
Plenty of marquee shows are still on the books and more are being added. But another round of sporadic cancellations and postponements has poked pinholes in local concert calendars, delaying reopening shows at some of Seattle’s signature venues like the Paramount Theatre and the Showbox. Meanwhile, many venues and artists nationwide have imposed vaccination requirements in efforts to bolster safety as some fans reassess their comfort levels.
Country acts Garth Brooks and Florida Georgia Line scrapped high-profile gigs in Seattle, both citing COVID-19 concerns. Other big names like the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy — whose Hella Mega Tour with Green Day and Weezer will mark Seattle’s largest concert since the pandemic started when it hits T-Mobile Park Sept. 6 — have missed shows after crew members caught the virus, adding another wrinkle.
“Starting Sept. 1, we got a lot of shows happening,” says Severin, also an organizer with the Washington Nightlife Music Association, a coalition of local venues. “I mean, a lot of shows. So do other people. And hopefully people are going to feel comfortable coming because they’re vaccinated and they’re gonna have masks on. We’re doing everything we can to keep our place safe.”
Are concerts safe?
The question on many fans’ minds as their favorite artists return to Seattle: Just how safe are concerts, especially indoors, in the current climate?
Evan Sylvester, Swedish Medical Center’s regional director of infection prevention, had encouraging words, with a few caveats.
“For fans who don’t have underlying conditions — comorbidities — they can feel relatively safe attending indoor concerts as long as they keep masking,” Sylvester wrote in an email. “The delta variant is highly transmissible, so being vaccinated, paired with the new Washington mask mandate while being indoors, is necessary if people choose to go to concerts.”
While breakthrough cases are possible, he noted, vaccinated individuals are less likely to become severely ill or spread the virus. That said, Sylvester encourages showgoers to also consider higher risk friends and family they come in contact with. And he’s concerned about the increase in the number of concerts while we’re experiencing a “dramatic uptick” in COVID-related hospitalizations.
“Large gatherings indoors while we experience this surge give me pause, even with these policies in place,” he wrote. “However, as long as proof of vaccination is provided, along with masking, the science shows that transmission should be relatively low, but not zero.”
Marilyn Roberts, a microbiologist at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational and Health Sciences, said everyone needs to determine a comfortable risk level — though she won’t be attending a concert any time soon. Roberts compares the timing of increasing concert activity as hospitalizations spike to “playing Russian roulette.”
“Even with masks and if you require vaccination, you’re going to have people singing, and the likelihood of having the masks stay on if they’re dancing around or whatever people do, it’s gonna be a disaster,” Roberts said. “Especially if they don’t require proof of vaccination.”
Currently, the majority of Seattle music venues — from neighborhood bars like the Clock-Out Lounge to the 2,800-capacity Paramount Theatre — require proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken within 48 to 72 hours of the show. Both Roberts and Sylvester agree that the negative test exception has its drawbacks.
“Negative COVID tests only capture a moment in time and should not be relied on solely to keep people safe,” Sylvester said. “Those attending shows might be infected but aren’t to a point where you can detect the virus with testing.”
Come October, a negative test won’t be good enough to get you into the Showbox or Showbox SoDo, making them among the few Seattle venues with a hard vaccinated-only policy. The move is in line with parent company AEG’s decision to require it for entry into all of its venues and festivals.
While vaccination checks are not required by state or local government, a spokesperson for Public Health — Seattle & King County said the agency is “strongly supportive” of such measures. “Public Health is continuously monitoring the evolving outbreak, and we are assessing the need for additional guidance, recommendations or requirements on an ongoing basis,” an email said.
This week, the Washington Nightlife Music Association’s King County chapter sent letters to government officials across the state, calling on them to enact vaccination mandates for entry into nightlife establishments “so that we don’t have to bear the brunt of it as private businesses,” Severin said. Similar policies have been adopted in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The venues also want a statewide vaccination-verification system.
By and large, artists and venues have led the shift toward implementing vaccination requirements at concerts across the country. And leaving those public health decisions up to professional party throwers and performers has been messy at times.
Earlier this month, the socially conscious Brandi Carlile, of all people, drew criticism from some fans for not requiring vaccination checks at her Gorge Amphitheatre concert. It was tough timing for the homestate hero, who’s since launched a website detailing COVID-19 protocol for all her upcoming shows.
The industrywide shift toward vaccine mandates culminated the day before the Carlile show when Live Nation — the world’s leading concert promoter — announced that its venues, including the Gorge, would adopt them starting Oct. 4. Till then, the live entertainment behemoth would continue to let artists make the call.
What’s more, the Grant County Health District announced the same day that 160 coronavirus cases were linked to fans who attended the three-day Watershed festival two weeks earlier at the Gorge. As of Wednesday, the Watershed case count had grown to more than 225, a figure Roberts characterized as “extremely low,” given the 25,000 or so in attendance, though the actual total is undoubtedly higher. Misty Aguilar, a spokesperson for the Grant County Health District, said it was still too early to draw any significant conclusions from the limited data.
“We don’t really know what it means yet, because we know that there are people who are feeling ill and they’re just not testing,” Aguilar said.
Even with all the right safety measures, there are no guarantees.
While vaccine rules at Watershed, where Trump flags outnumbered masks, would have gone over as well as Megadeth at a jazz club, the clientele at Tim’s Tavern was largely on board with the Greenwood bar’s masked-and-vaxxed standards. “For every one bozo arguing, there was 10 people saying that they supported us,” co-owner and bartender Mason Reed said.
With a lease Reed said their landlord refused to renew ending in November, he hoped his live music den would have a few farewell months after reopening this summer. Instead, Tim’s shuttered this week over COVID-19 concerns.
“We had about three and a half weeks and it was pure bliss,” Reed said. “Then all of a sudden, it started creeping back with this COVID stuff.”
Bands were canceling left and right and Reed and his business partner decided to call it quits before their lease was up. The next day, Reed, who was vaccinated, tested positive. Reed’s breakthrough case, which nearly sent him to the hospital, was the last straw.
Now Tim’s owners are hunting for a new location, somewhere they can have an outdoor stage. “We’re betting on an outdoor venue being the only way that live music is going to continue in Seattle,” Reed said. “That’s the only way I can envision it working and feeling safe.”
The show goes on
Last Friday, a smaller-than-anticipated crowd gathered at Neumos, maybe a third wearing masks. Seattle rock veteran Ayron Jones was playing a celebratory hometown headliner, his first since signing a record deal and landing a couple of radio hits.
“It’s wonderful to see you,” KISW’s Steve “The Thrill” Hill told the crowd, introducing the Seattle guitar hero. “Who knows if we can do it again, but tonight is our night.”
Neumos co-owner Severin pegs the lower turnout squarely on COVID-19 and said ticket sales have been down across the country. Still, with so much variance between audience demographics and competing summer activities, it can be tricky to draw too many sweeping conclusions. Watershed was virtually sold out. The night of Jones’ show, a line stretched down the block for an emo dance party at Chop Suey.
“Our sales have been really solid and strong, so I’m feeling good,” Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Neptune, Moore and Paramount theaters, said two weeks ago. “I would not be surprised, had we not [imposed vaccination/negative test requirements], to see a bit of a dip, but right now I’m not.”
Even after Gov. Jay Inslee’s renewed indoor mask mandate and rising cases, Severin doesn’t believe another government-forced shutdown is in the cards. However, the veteran promoter does worry it could happen organically, if enough artists sideline their tours. As a growing number of artists refuse to play venues without vaccination requirements, some states have barred businesses from checking vaccination status, which could make routing financially viable tours more difficult.
“It’s so unknown right now what’s going to happen this fall,” Severin said. “And that’s definitely the hardest part of all this. Just sitting, waiting to see what’s going to happen.”